Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

The Murdered Maid (1832)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Poverty-stricken yokels kill lodger for her savings. But it's really their own daughter.

The Broadside
Jemmy Catnach calls this sheet A Horrid Murder. Instead of relying on a stock illustration, as he often does elsewhere, he seems to have commissioned a brand-new drawing, which exactly depicts the scene described.
Catnach gives us about 800 words of prose telling the story, with the nine ballad verses tagged on beneath. The original ballad's rhyming is a little sloppy, pairing "none" with "return", for example, and "chest" with "place", so I've taken the liberty of rewriting verses three and four. The Murdered Maid is my own title.

The Ballad
Near Exminster in Devonshire,
A couple lived as you shall hear,
In humble cot of lowly fame,
Tom Johnson was the peasant's name.

One daughter God had sent their way,
But she upon a sick bed lay,
And poverty so hard did press,
They could not aid her in distress.

An honest maid came by one night,
And asked if there she could alight,
But one night's rent can't pay the bills,
To treat their sickly daughter's ills.

When Tom came home, his wife she said,
'A lodger shares our daughter's bed,
She's saved a guinea in her chest,
And now beneath our roof she rests.'

Tom Johnson to his wife did say,
'She shall not live till break of day,'
But God above ordained it so,
She overheard what he would do.

She thought on this: the wretch depraved,
And how her precious life to save,
By swapping sides in daughter's bed,
She'd spare her clever little head.

At dead of night Tom did proceed,
To perpetrate his horrid deed,
Up to her bed in haste he flew,
And in mistake his daughter slew.

Then to the garden he conveyed,
The body of this murdered maid,
Not thinking that it was his own,
Or that it ever would be known.

The lodger told he was to blame,
And when that he to justice came,
Was sentenced for the wicked deed,
To die upon a fatal tree.

The Facts
Catnach's prose account tells us that a peasant farmer called Thomas Johnson left his wife and 17-year-old daughter at home on Dartmoor while he went of to try and find work. His daughter was sick, and the family had another girl lodging with them.
Johnson returns empty-handed two weeks later, now more desperate than ever, and finds both his wife and daughter in poor straits. The daughter's still getting worse, Mrs Johnson explains, every penny she's been able to scrape together has been going on medicine, and neither of them have eaten for the past two days. Giving "a ghastly grin of the most diabolical tendency", she draws Thomas to one side and tells him their lodger has saved a guinea from her days as a servant maid. Why don't they kill her and steal it?

'It was drawn across the throat of the girl, and her blood swelled out in a purple tide'

Thomas struggles with his conscience for a while but, knowing his daughter might die otherwise, he finally agrees. They sneak into the bedroom at midnight, where the two girls are sharing a bed, and note that the lodger is lying nearest the door. They then withdraw, and hold a whispered conversation about how the deed is to be done. What they don't know is that the lodger's still awake, and overhears their plan. Fearing for her life, the young woman gently nudges her companion over to the other side of the bed, and takes up the daughter's place next to the wall.
"All was now silent," Catnach says. "But in a few minutes, the door of the room was lifted gently on its latch and a head thrust forward. The form advanced, and was succeeded by another, bearing a dark lantern in its hand. They approached the bed in quiet, but in the agitation of their movements, the light was extinguished.
"The young woman continued in the most fearful suspension, and could distinctly hear the sharpening of the murderous weapon, and see its blade glittering in the darkness of the room. In an instant, it was drawn across the throat of the sleeping girl and separated the arteries, and the blood swelled in a purple tide from the wound. The hollow death rattle followed, the sinews of the body became contracted with convulsions and a long, deep sigh announced that the midnight murder was effected."
Thomas and his wife take up the body and carry it out to the garden, their lodger secretly following. Thomas has already dug a grave there, and they move towards it through what Catnach takes care to ensure is suitably ominous weather. "The night was wild and tempestuous," he writes. "Thunder reverberated in ten thousand echoes along the murky arch of Heaven. The wind howled across the moors, and every succeeding gust spoke of unraveled horror. Not a star was visible in the firmament, but all grew black and dismal, save the lightning flash irradiated the landscape and betrayed its utter desolation."
The frightened couple get their burden to the graveside, and drop it in. Only then does a flash of lightning suddenly illuminate the corpse's face, revealing it to be their own dear daughter. Hearing a noise behind them, they glimpse their lodger in her white nightgown, hair blowing wildly about her face, and gesturing at them to return to the house. Concluding this is their daughter's ghost, Mrs Johnson drops dead on the spot, tumbling into the grave on top of the corpse she's just helped dump there. Thomas makes it back to the cottage, but is quickly convicted on the lodger's evidence, and executed for his crime.

Catnach's sheet is the only account I've been able to find of this crime, so we have only his word for it that any of this happened. There's no date on the sheet, but an earlier reader has scrawled what looks to be "1832" (or perhaps "1882") at the top. Despite Catnach's clear statement that Johnson was executed for the murder, there's no case that matches his in either the 18th or 19th Century execution records.
It also has to be said that this story reads very much like an adaptation of The Unnatural Murder, which we've already discussed. Like that 17th Century tale, Catnach's version has the parents accidentally killing their own child, explains that they were driven to this action by poverty, and shows the mother dropping dead from shock and grief straight afterwards. The Unnatural Murder is set in Penryn, Cornwall, and The Murdered Maid happens just 80 miles away in the Devon town of Exminster.
We know Jemmy Catnach wasn't above making up a good crime story now and again, so I'd guess The Murdered Maid is his bid to spin a new variation on an old tale so he could sell it a second time. He was prepared to invest in a brand-new drawing for the sheet, which suggests he was pretty confident about its appeal.
The fact that this new version adds the element of two young women sharing a bed gives it an extra little sexual frisson for modern readers. I don't know if Catnach's original audience would have viewed it that way but, if so, I'm sure it didn't hurt sales.

To hear Alan Rosevear singing The Murdered Maid - in a version he calls The Horrid Murder - please visit the Soundcloud page here.

To hear Kim Caudell sing The Murdered Maid, please visit the Soundcloud page here.

* A Horrid Murder, Giving an Account of how a Young Woman was benighted while traveling - how she applied at the Cottage of Thomas Johnson for Lodgings for the Night - how the Inhuman Monster and his Wife entered the apartment where she slept, with the intention of Murdering her, and by mistake Murdered their own Daughter. (Jemmy Catnach, date unknown).
* Capital Punishment UK (

Songs menu: A feast of facts and all the lyrics

The menu below lists a few of my favourite ballads from the British Library's collection and elsewhere. Click on any title to find the full lyrics and my account of the case that inspired them. And, if you haven't already read it, do take a look at my background essay describing the London industry which produced these songs.

Part One (April 2010)

Mary Arnold, The Female Monster

The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs

Mrs Dyer, The Old Baby-Farmer

The Gallows Child

Part Two (June 2010)

The Life and Trial of Palmer

The Silent Grove

The Liverpool Lodger

The Unnatural Murder

Part Three (Oct 2010)

Murder at Westmill

Streams of Crimson Blood

The Murdered Maid

Cruel Lizzie Vickers

Part Four (Feb 2011)

Jones and Harwood

The Sister and the Serpent

Jealous Annie

The Foreigner's Downfall

Bonus songs

The Tyburn Jig

Corkery's Farewell

The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If you'd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 ballads' public domain lyrics to your own music and record yourself singing and playing it?
   Any music you write would remain your own property, of course, as would the recording itself, and I'll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   There's no money in this for anyone - least of all me - but I think it's a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and I'll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen song's page here.

2) Post the recording online at your own site or the hosting service of your choice. Let me know where it can be found, and I'll add a link telling people where to go. Please remember that some hosting sites allow access to members only.

3) Film yourself performing the song, and post the video to YouTube. Once again, I'd be delighted to add a link here telling people where to find it.

4) Write your own song from scratch, based on the true story that inspired one of the ballads, then follow whichever of the above options suits you.

   Check PlanetSlade Music for a taste of what I have in mind. I spent all of 2012 recruiting contributors for this little project, and I've now accumulated at least one new recording of each of the 16 original ballads I selected. You can find links to all this audio on the PlanetSlade page above, or hear the whole "album" in the Soundcloud set here.
   The styles people have chosen range all the way from unaccompanied traditional folk singing via acoustic guitar ballads to full-on rock workouts with a whole band.
   Contributors so far include Sean Breadin of Rapunzel & Sedayne, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Fred Smith, Tim Radford, Big Al Whittle and South County.
   Three continents are represented in all, and at least one of the songs has already made it into the contributing band's live set. None of the tracks have achieved a commercial release yet, but I dare say a couple will make that leap eventually.
   We've already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please don't feel you're too late to make your own contribution.
   I'm all for people adding second, third or even fourth interpretations of a single song, using as many different musical genres as we can muster. Many, many thanks to all those who've already taken part.
   You can reach me with any questions here